At 11:30 a.m. Thursday morning, the overwhelming majority of people involved in college athletics didn’t know who George Kliavkoff was.
Kliavkoff, the president of entertainment and sports at MGM Resorts International, was announced as the fifth commissioner in Pac-12 history, so of course, everyone rushed to the internet to try and make sense of it.
Including his current position at MGM, Kliavkoff’s resume is that of a high-end media executive, having worked at Hearst Entertainment, Hulu, NBC Universal and MLB Advanced Media VP.
Kliavkoff has zero professional experience in college athletics, zero professional experience in academia, so the knee-jerk reaction was to compare him to Larry Scott. The outgoing league commissioner also had no experience in college sports walking in the door in 2009, and his tenure has been crushed, mostly for the league’s current media rights deal, which lags behind its Power Five brethren.
With the current media-rights deal expiring after the 2023-24 academic year, the Pac-12 again hiring a media executive for its top position comes off as a clear indication that it knows it needs to nail the next media rights negotiations, which are likely to begin in late 2022 or early 2023.
Whatever the general public thinks of Kliavkoff’s hire, he, along with Oregon president and Pac-12 CEO Group chair Michael Schill, got on a 38-minute Zoom call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. Kliavkoff’s first impression was, by any measurement, optimistic. He hit a bunch of hot-button topics, and he did so clearly and succinctly.
“On behalf of Utah Athletics, I want to welcome George Kliavkoff to the Pac-12 Conference as our new Commissioner,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said in a statement. “He brings an innovative, strategic approach to a very challenging role, with intercollegiate athletics in a truly transformative period. I am confident that Commissioner Kliavkoff will ensure that the Pac-12 is a national leader in shaping college athletics for years to come and will help our conference cement its position as the nation’s premier athletic conference.”
For starters, Kliavkoff outlined his top-three immediate priorities for the conference. Protecting and supporting student-athletes, making decisions to optimize revenue for member institutions, including renegotiating the media-distribution deals, and making league members more competitive in revenue-generating sports, especially football.
Kliavkoff then got everyone’s attention by saying the Pac-12 is in favor of the College Football Playoff expanding, as well as the implementation of consistent guidelines for Name, Image and Likeness.
“We think that both CFP expansion and NIL legislation are good for college sports fans, good for our student-athletes, and can be a significant competitive advantage for the Pac-12,” Kliavkoff said.
At one point, Kliavkoff was asked about the possibility of automatic CFP qualification for conference champions. He essentially balked at the question, but Schill could clearly be seen shaking his head in agreement with the question.
Scott’s time as commissioner, which will end on June 30, included the Pac-12 expanding to 12 teams in 2011, including the University of Utah, a multi-billion dollar media-rights deal with ESPN and Fox, and the creation of the Pac-12 Network, but in recent years, the general public soured on the 56-year-old.
In fiscal 2019, the Pac-12 paid roughly $32.2 million to each member school, a figure that is dwarfed by the rest of the Power Five. A full SEC share in fiscal 2019 was $45.3 million, and about $55.6 million in the Big Ten.
The Pac-12 payout also trailed the Big 12 ($42 million), but was mostly on par with the ACC (approximately $34 million).
The lack of media revenue, the lack of, as Kliavkoff noted, football and basketball national championships, the lack of positive regional and national perception are all things that need fixing, but so, too, is the relationship between the commissioner and the 12 campuses.
That end of the job eroded under Scott’s watch, so whether it’s Kliavkoff, or some sort of conference liaison to the campuses hired by Kliavkoff, that situation bears watching. There are 12 athletic directors, 12 presidents or chancellors, and exponentially-more coaches. All of them have questions, all of them have concerns, all of them want to be heard.
That, just like the media-rights stuff, needs to be a major early focus of Kliavkoff’s tenure.
“My leadership style is relationship-driven,” Kliavkoff said. “I’ve built long-standing relationships with everyone I’ve worked with or negotiated against across a 25-plus-year career in sports, media, technology and entertainment.
“Once I start in July, my intention is to go on a listening tour. This starts with developing a deep partnership with the athletic directors and coaches. The success of the conference and my personal success in this role is tied to the success of ADs and coaches.”